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October 15, 2008 > History: The 1868 Earthquake in Washington Township

History: The 1868 Earthquake in Washington Township

The year 1868 promised to be one of continued progress for the people of Washington Township. Residents living on the ex-Mission of San Jose tract had finally received patents to their land from the United States Land Office. The country along the line of the Western Pacific Railroad "was looking up" as land prices increased, but the railroad was not completed yet, and people traveled by horseback, buggy, wagon or stage coach. This was a presidential election year, and mass meetings of both Republicans and Democrats created excitement in each town.

The towns in Washington Township had the necessary business houses and hotels. Alvarado advertised 25 business establishments, Mission San Jose 19, Centerville 14, Washington Corners (Irvington) seven, Vallejo Mills six and Harrisburg (Warm Springs) four. Only Alvarado and Mission San Jose listed saloons. Alvarado, Centerville, and Washington Corners had resident physicians. Centerville had a dentist, Mission a hairdresser, and Vallejo Mills two stone cutters and a flour mill. Newark and Decoto were not yet designated as towns.

Alvarado, Alviso, Centerville, Mowry's Landing, Lincoln, Washington Corners and Warm Springs School Districts each had a small school. Cosmopolitan (later Decoto) School District was formed in July 1868. There was no high school in the area. Mission San Jose, Alvarado, Centerville and Harrisburg had post offices. The county court house was at San Leandro, and the main bridge over Alameda Creek was at Alvarado.

The Union Pacific Salt Company was incorporated and purchased Rock Island at the mouth of Alameda Creek for its operation. B.T. Clough started a nursery at his farm on Alameda Creek and the Hellwig Meat Company was organized at Alvarado. The population of the township was about 2500.

The velocipede craze was adopted by the smart set and spread to all parts of the county. These bicycles had wheels of every description and size, and there were special models designed for the ladies.

A "lively earthquake" in March shook everyone but did not injure anyone or damage property. It appeared that 1868 would go down in the records as "a peaceful year of progress." Then just before 8:00 a.m. October 21 the earth began to heave. People were thrown to the ground, and horses fell to their knees. Cracks opened in the ground along the Hayward Fault from Warm Springs through San Leandro. There were so many fissures between Mission San Jose and Hayward that it was difficult to move wagons and buggies. Some of the cracks were eight feet wide and so deep the bottom could not be seen. Springs were opened on Mission Peak. The Tyson Lagoon parted down the middle and threw water both ways. The lagoon was dry for three years after the earthquake. The quake was felt over a large area and was strong enough to "cause some folks to consider the here after."

The adobe Mission Church that had survived many tremors was wrecked in seconds. Nearby adobe buildings were also in ruins. The Vallejo home survived but required extensive repairs. Rocks rolled down the hillsides, and a well pump began to run by itself.

Centerville was also hit hard. The brick Presbyterian Church was so badly damaged it had to be rebuilt. The J.C. Stevens Store that had 20 tons of grain stored on the top floor came crashing down. Milton's Hotel slid off its foundation. Dr. J.M. Selfridge lost part of his concrete home. People rushed outside to escape the falling dishes and clung to nearby trees for refuge. Water in tanks slopped eastward.

The railroad tracks in Irvington twisted for several hundred yards. The ground rolled in waves like the ocean. All the chimneys fell, and brick walls were damaged or demolished. People were thrown to the ground and were unable to rise. Cracks opened through town and along the hillside.

A warehouse at the Warm Springs Landing collapsed dumping 5,000 sacks of grain into the slough. The earthquake also cooled the waters of Warm Springs, damaged the hotel and ended the glory days of the resort. Adobe buildings were damaged or destroyed. Cracks spewed forth artesian wells.

Alvarado suffered extensive damage. A chasm eight feet wide was opened near the Dyer place. The ground separated and water poured out in several places. Stokes store was wrecked and the bridge over Alameda Creek crushed. The walls of the brick stable where A.J. Latin kept his valuable horses fell, but the timbers protected the horses. The town was reported to be "quiet and despondent" after the earthquake.

People rendered assistance where they could, repaired the damage, and prayed that such devastation would never again hit the East Bay Area. Aftershocks continued for days and were often preceded by rumblings in the ground, but the November rains renewed hope for a promising future.

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